Stressed and Having Difficulty Getting Out of a Negative Thought Spiral? Here’s How Mother Nature May Be Able to Help

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Have you ever found yourself stuck in a negative loop of repetitive thoughts? Like when you mess something up in rehearsal, and start reliving the moment in your head on the drive home. Where it’s like your brain tries to figure out how bad it was (or wasn’t). Which leads to an attempt to interpret the ambiguous look the conductor gave you. And the body language and facial expressions of colleagues around you. As well as the brief interaction you had with a colleague after rehearsal, and what their seeming compliment about your playing really meant. Which leads you to start wondering if you’ll ever be asked to play with the orchestra again. And what people will think if you lose this gig. And so on and so on, inevitably ending with you worrying about living in a van down by the river .

There are plenty of times when reflecting on the past, or planning for the future can be a good thing. But times like the scenario above, where we get stuck in our heads, thinking and rethinking a situation, analyzing and overanalyzing it to death? Yeah, that’s a whole other thing.

This sort of brooding, negative, spiraling thinking pattern is called rumination. It’s kind of like our mind’s version of doomscrolling, but using just the thoughts and images in our own heads, no phone necessary.

Escaping the negative rumination loop

Indeed, with all of the uncertainty and change we experienced in 2020 (and with whatever lies ahead in 2021), it can be easy to get lost in our own thoughts, and stuck in an endless list of what if’s or should have’s. Which makes us feel pretty crappy, and even more stressed out. Which in turn can set off a negative feedback loop, where the more we ruminate, the worse we feel, which makes us ruminate more, which makes us feel even worse, which makes us ruminate some more…and so on.

This is not a particularly enjoyable headspace to hang out in, of course, and can also make it harder to get stuff done. Never mind get into that zone, whether it’s practicing, reading a book, taking a class, or getting in your TRX workout, where we lose track of time, and for a brief blissful moment, totally forget about whatever it was in our life that was stressing us out.

Of course, like trying to escape from quicksand, interrupting the rumination cycle can be easier said than done.

So what are we to do? Are there any proven ways to get ourselves into a better headspace on cue?

A walk in the park

A team of researchers (Lopes et al., 2020) set out to test one particular strategy for reducing rumination. Especially for those who live in cities. (Because apparently, people who live in cities may be more stressed out…?)

And what was this strategy?

Walks. Specifically, nature walks.

We’ve actually looked at the benefits of walks a couple times before (like here and here). At least in terms of how they can reduce stress, improve our emotional state, or enhance creativity.

But are nature walks also an effective way to interrupt the rumination loop and get us out of our own heads?

Two different paths…

The researchers recruited 62 participants, who all started off by taking a set of assessments designed to measure rumination and mood.

And then they were randomly assigned to one of two groups.

The “walk in nature” participants were asked to take a 30-min walk, along a 2km path in a garden-like setting near the university where the study took place:

The “walk in city” group on the other hand, though they began their walk at the same starting point and likewise took a 30-min, 2km walk, theirs was devoid of trees, flowers, and picturesque views of the river, and filled instead with concrete, sidewalks, cars, shops, and other buildings.

Upon finishing their walk, participants retook the rumination and mood assessments. And also reported the degree to which they experienced awe during their walk. And also to what degree their thoughts were directed more externally during their walk (to the scenery around them) than internally (i.e. lost in their own thoughts and unaware of their surroundings).

So…did the different walk settings have any impact on the walkers’ moods? Or their ruminating?

Rumination changes

Walking, in and of itself, had no impact on rumination for the participants who took a walk in the city (290.17 before the walk vs. 298.37 after).

On the other hand, there was a significant decrease in rumination for the participants who took a walk in the park (310.13 before the walk vs. 196.94 after)

Mood changes

The researchers measured two aspects of the participants’ emotional state – both the positive and negative sides of the spectrum. Positive affect being the experience of emotions like joy or enthusiasm. And negative affect being emotions like sadness, fear, or distress.

When it came to the nature group, a walk in the park didn’t do much to boost their positive emotions1. However, it did take the edge off their negative emotions, with a decrease in negative affect that was statistically significant2.

Meanwhile, the city walkers had the opposite experience. Walking around in the city actually made them feel less positive3, while their negative emotions stayed about the same4.

The tl;dr version

So all in all, the 30-min nature walk seemed to put participants in both a better mental state, and a better emotional state, by reducing rumination and improving their mood.

Which is pretty cool to know – but how? Why?

But how? Why?

The researchers dug into the data a bit deeper and did a “mediation analysis” to see if they could figure out what the underlying causes of this phenomenon might be.

Turns out that awe and mood are two of the key factors. As in, the more awe participants experienced, the greater their reduction in negative affect, and the more they shifted away from rumination.

And actually, it turns out that awe may not even be necessary! Because the researchers also found a significant link between nature, mood, and rumination that was even stronger than the link between nature, awe, mood, and rumination.

Which is to say, that even if a walk doesn’t lead to the experience of awe, it may still put you in a better mood, which in and of itself is likely to break you out of a ruminative thinking spiral.

Because it seems that nature walks serve as a positive distraction away from the self. Like, it gets our minds to shift away from putting a microscope on us and whatever situation we’re stressing about, and directs it instead on the cool breeze, the cute dog, the old couple holding hands, the leaves fluttering in the breeze, the smell of fresh air, and all of the beauty in the little things outside of ourselves.

So how would you recreate the experience of the participants who gained the most from their walk?

How to replicate the walk in the park

Well, the participants actually followed behind a pace walker, who walked through the park at a consistent 4km/hr, for the duration of the 2km path. No phones were allowed. And they were specifically asked to focus on their surroundings.

I think you can scratch the whole pace walker thing. Although I could see how that might be kind of hilarious to try with a friend. I do think though that putting your phone on airplane mode would be a good idea. So that you’re not distracted by notifications, and are able to focus on your surroundings, rather than being distracted by music or a podcast, or whatever else you would ordinarily be listening to on a walk.

And does it have to be a 2km walk (1.24 miles)? Yeah, that part isn’t really clear. I’m guessing you could start with 30 minutes, and then try 25, 20, etc. to see if there might be a good balance there somewhere between the investment of time put in, and the mind-clearing benefits you experience.

For what it’s worth, novelty isn’t really part of the equation. As in, it doesn’t seem like you need to go to an unfamiliar park for this to work. Participants were walking in a park that they visited on a regular basis, so any old green space could probably work for this. Maybe the closer and easier to get to, the better.

So if a bad practice day, or watching too much news, or a roommate/family squabble is bringing you down and making your brain spiral to the bad place, experiment with a walk in the park and see if that helps put you in a better mental and emotional place. It’s free, doesn’t take very long, and walking is supposed to be good for us anyway, so it kind of sounds like a win-win all around!


References

Lopes, S., Lima, M., & Silva, K. (2020). Nature can get it out of your mind: The rumination reducing effects of contact with nature and the mediating role of awe and mood. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 71, 101489. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101489

Footnotes

  1. 28.97 before vs 30.91 after – this change was not statistically significant
  2. 13.84 before vs. 11.09 after
  3. 26.53 before vs. 22.83 after – a statistically significant drop in positive emotions
  4. 12.43 before vs. 14.07 after – this change was not statistically significant

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

5 Responses

    1. Yeah, good question. Not sure how much of a factor the walking pace might be, and being outdoors/spaced away from people, with greenery. But since it seems like mood is a key factor in rumination, if strolling through an art museum has a positive effect on your mood, and your attention is drawn to other mood-enhancing things outside of yourself, it’s certainly worth trying out.

      1. Just remember that if worst comes to worst we’ll get some awe on our walk down to, “living in a van down by the river”.

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